Saturday, November 16, 2013

The John Symank Story — Part II

(Source: 1961 Green Bay Packers Yearbook)

We are presenting a two-part reader-submitted entry about Packers DB John “Johnny” Symank from Dick Bowers, one of our readers, who happens to have been his brother-in-law. Here is Part II:


Johnny Symank made Little All-American his second year at Arlington. Oh, by the way, Johnny and my sister Sariann eloped to Marlin, Texas and got married October 10, 1953. Since I was only three at the time I have only heard how upset my mother Lorraine was at the time and for years after. I think my Dad was alright with the marriage since he felt like he was kind of an accomplice. 

The first recollection I have of Johnny Symank was on a trip to Gainesville, Florida at Christmas time in 1956. There are photos of me with Johnny and Sariann before this time, but the trip to Florida is my first recollection. Johnny was recruited out of Arlington by the University of Florida where he played two seasons and is in the Gator Hall of Fame. We left Caldwell, Texas in a blue and white 1956 Ford Fairlane and about ten miles down the road my sister Bonnie and I had to be separated in the back seat. My dad smoked cigars at the time and he was puffing away on a big Travis Club with the car windows up and my sister Bonnie cried and complained so much that he pulled over, rolled the window down and threw the cigar out the window. Those were the days, when life was simple. I have got to give Bonnie credit though, she married Murphy Davis, who was a standout football player for the Caldwell Hornets and then went on to star at Rice University. 

Now, back to the Symanks' and the trip to Florida. Sariann gave birth to my neice Sally Ann on July 14, 1955 so she was about a year and a half old when I first met her that Christmas of '56. I woke up Christmas morning and found a football uniform that Santa had left for me and then Dad, Johnny and I went to Florida Field and I have a photo of me in my uniform handing the football off to Johnny.  Johnny's grandson Keegan Wright has this photo of Johnny and I on his website

We arrived back in Caldwell safe and sound and soon after I find out that Johnny had been drafted by the Green Bay Packers. Everyone was pretty excited about Johnny being drafted in the 1957 draft but Green Bay, Wisconsin was a long, long way from Caldwell, Texas. Johnny was drafted by the Packers in the — get this, twenty-third round — which was pretty close to the last round, and I think Johnny once told me he received five hundred dollars as a signing bonus. I am not positive about this, but I think Johnny might be the only Green Bay Packer in the history of the franchise drafted in the twenty-third round that made the team and also started. Johnny's grandson Keegan Wright has a fine website that I mentioned above that best describes Johnny's first two years with the Packers. Also, Johnny is mentioned predominately in the book “That First Season” by John Eisenberg about the season preceeding Coach Lombardi and then Lombardi's "First Season" in 1959 as Head Coach of the Packers.

Ah yes, Coach Lombardi. The first time I met and shook hands with Vince Lombardi was at the Packers training camp in July of 1961. My mother, Bonnie and I had traveled from Caldwell to Chicago on the Santa Fe train and Sariann met us there and we drove up to Green Bay. At training camp, Coach Lombardi was just exactly like everyone down through the years has described him. When we shook hands he was nice and cordial and asked about our train ride and that he hoped I would enjoy my time in Green Bay and I thought, boy, what a nice coach. When I went over to the sideline to watch some of the practice I got to see the other side of Lombardi and I think if the coaches of today put their teams through what I saw that day, they would be put in handcuffs and led out of the practice area. Of course, there were other tough coaches during that era, Paul “Bear” Bryant at Texas A&M (“The Junction Boys” by Jim Dent) and then at Alabama, and Jess Neely at Rice are ones that come to mind. I don't think the players today have a clue what the players of that era went through for the small amount of compensation they were awarded when they got to the NFL.

The next time I got to shake hands with Vince Lombardi was about a month later when they came down to Texas to play an exhibition game with the Cowboys. The game was on Friday night and this was the era when the teams flew in for a game and stayed for three days instead of flying in one day, play the game the next, and fly back the night of the game. The Packers won the game 30-7 and even though it was their first exhibition game that year, it looked like Coach Lombardi had the team on the right track for a championship season. We met with Johnny after the game and Lombardi let him to go with us to get something to eat, and if I remember correctly, it was a place that had raw oysters because my Dad and Johnny loved raw oysters and a mug of cold beer. Since I was eleven at the time I had to rely on a sip of beer from each of them. We returned to the hotel and walked down a sidewalk along some brick walls that had ivy growing up the sides of the walls, and there was also a wood cover over the sidewalk that had ivy on it. Up ahead in a small building I could hear some voices and they were getting pretty loud. When we got to the door and looked in there was Dave “Hawg” Hanner and a group of players gathered around a number ten wash tub full of ice and plenty of cold Miller High Life.  They were all smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and looked like they were having one Hell of a time.  Johnny stopped at the entrance and joked that he hoped Coach had already turned in because they might get themselves in trouble. They kept smoking and drinking and appeared to not worry about that at all. We went on down to our rooms as it was getting late, but I had other plans and snuck back to the building where the players were and hid in the bushes. 

I positioned myself where I could see in through the entrance to the building and was having a great time watching some of the best players that ever played the game having a good time. I glanced to my right and saw a man in the shadows walking down the sidewalk toward the building where the players were. My heart started beating fast when I saw that the man was Coach Lombardi and I was anxiously waiting to see and hear what would happen next. Lombardi arrived at the entrance, looked in and said this to the players, “Go ahead, have your fun tonight, and I will see you on Monday.”  He then turned and walked back toward the hotel and, I presume, went to bed. I was a little disappointed because I expected all Hell to break loose, but the more I thought about it through the years I realized that this was Lombardi — short and to the point. This exhibition game was on Friday, August 11, 1961, so they would have flown back to Green Bay on Saturday, so the players had the whole day of  Sunday before the dreaded Monday.

John Symank is listed in the Green Bay Packer record books under “Interceptions” in the following categories:

• Most Yards Gained — Rookie Season, 1st, 198 yds.
• Most Seasons Leading Team, tied for 4th, 1957, 59 & 61
• Most Interceptions By Season, tied for 2nd with 9 int.
• Most Interceptions By Rookie — Season, tied for 2nd with 9 int.
• Most Yards Gained — Season, 5th, 198 yds.

The following is a quote from “Run To Daylight” by Vince Lombardi and W.C. Heinz: Coach Lombardi says of Symank, “He has made it in this league because he gets a great deal more out of himself than his ability and size justify, and I wish I could say this about the rest of them. Many of them will rise for one game or two, but John gets the maximum out of himself in every game, and if I had 35 others like him I'd have a far better team than I have.” I personally think that this quote should be enough to get John Symank into the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame.

Forrest Gregg, Bill Forester, Bobby Dillon and Lew Carpenter attended Johnny's funeral in the small town of Caldwell, Texas in 2002, and I think it showed the respect they had for a fellow teammate. I can't help but think that Johnny and Charlie McNeil are up there somewhere tackling one another.

Johnny Symank (#27) with his teammates in the 1960 team photo.

Here is some bonus coverage on Symank and his defensive backfield teammates from the 1961 Green Bay Packers Yearbook (above and below):